Category Archives: Writing

My Nabokovian Winter

In my previous post I wrote about my major physical project of the Winter, rebuilding my broken down 62-year-old body. In this column I address what I have been doing to keep my mind active.

Winters are long in Western New York and one can easily develop a bad case of cabin fever, especially if you limit yourself to watching television and browsing the other vast wasteland of the Internet.

Although I have been a voracious reader for most of my life, I confess that in the last 15 years or so, since the rise of the Internet (and especially since getting an iPad), most of my reading has been of the online variety. Although some would say that there are no accidents, it was an unexpected twist of fate that restored my love of books.

While participating in the Lima Farmers Market last fall, I took a quick break to grab a cup of coffee from a local convenience mart. In the store I discovered a local library group had placed a bookshelf of free books.

Not expecting to find much of any interest, I made a quick scan of the titles. Much to my surprise I found two titles by Vladimir Nabokov: “Ada or Ardor” and “King, Queen, Knave.” Although I had read Lolita a number of times and counted it one of my favorite books, I had never tried to read any of his other work, so I picked them both up and left a small donation for the library.

When the farm season wound down I picked up Ada and tried to read it. I had no idea of the difficulty of the task. I later learned that the first few chapters of Ada are considered to be the most difficult that Nabokov has ever written.

It was almost impossible to decipher what was happening in the plot, almost as if the author was deliberately trying to scare off the casual reader. Of course, any work by Nabokov is a House of Mirrors in which nothing is ever quite what it seems, but Ada, published in 1969, the 16th of his 19 novels, may be the most extreme case.

Luckily, before I gave up, I happened upon an online version of the text which was annotated (at least up to page 200 of the 600 page tome.) With the help of the annotation I was able to decipher not only the plot, but the many puns, literary allusions and the many untranslated sections of  French and Russian phrases!

Once you can read it at the level, you will quickly find yourself in a most amusing Fun House with a least one chuckle or an outright howler in almost every paragraph. After finally finishing Ada, I found the much more conventional King, Queen, Knave much easier going.

Written originally in Russian in 1928, and then translated into English and revised by the author in 1968, KQN was Nabokov’s second novel. The plot is easily followed, despite a few surprising twists, but the literary talent is already obvious. I was hooked!

In rapid succession I have devoured the novels “Pale Fire,” ” Pnin” (twice!), “Bend Sinister”and Nabokov’s first novel in English, “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” written in 1938, but not published until 1941. Along the way I also read his autobiography “Speak, Memory” that covers his first 40 years before coming to America.

Currently I have his two last completed works “Transparent Works” and “Look at the Harlequins” on order as well as another of his Russian language originals “Despair” from 1934, also translated and revised by the author in 1965.

When I finish all that I can’t wait to re-read Lolita again, the annotated version of course! In addition to reading the books I also keep my computer by my side to look up all the unfamiliar vocabulary words and references.

Upon finishing each book I go online to try to figure out what I have just read. It is gratifying to me to discover that I am not alone in being perplexed. If even the greatest experts have trouble untangling the ambiguity that Nabokov loves so much, who am I to worry about it?

In any case it has been great fun and I highly commend all of these works, or really anything that he wrote, to the serious reader, although I would not recommend that you start with Ada! Pnin, or Pale Fire might be the most easily accessible.

To have such an obsession with the works of one writer is not that unusual for me. Earlier in my life I went through similar infatuations with the works of Henry Miller, Doris Lessing, Carl Jung,  John Updike and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (In fact I took a little break in January to re-set my pallet with Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch.” )

While I still love all these authors I bow down to the new master: Nabokov must surely be the greatest literary stylist of all time!

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Giants in the earth

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them…” Genesis 6:4

With the death of John Updike yesterday, the greatest American literary giant of the 20th Century has fallen. I don’t remember the first time I read Updike’s deathless prose, but I know that as soon as I did, I instantly realized that I could never be a real writer.

Pick up any Updike book and read any sentence at random. What you will find is the closest thing to literary perfection north of Gabriel García Márquez. Read another and another and soon you will be hooked. This man never wrote a bad sentence.

On my Facebook page I have listed “writing the great American Novel” as one of my hobbies. That is of course a lie. The Great American Novel has already been written and it is the Rabbit Quadrilogy: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and lets not forget the epilogue, Rabbit Remembered.

Although those were great, I actually preferred some of the lesser works, such as A Month of Sundays, The Coup, Memories of the Ford Administration and the hilarious Bech stories. Despite the horrible movie that shares its title, The Witches of Eastwyck is actually a good book, which is why I recently bought and read the sequel, which it now appears will be Updike’s final novel, The Widows of Eastwyck.

Perhaps the master did slip a peg or two at the end, but those perfect sentences were still there, polished like gems. To have someone of that much talent walking the earth seems impossible to grasp. It is only by reference to the quote above from the Book of Genesis that we can begin to understand.

It seems that the Giants of this earth are not mere mortals. Like Jesus, they were born with heavenly fathers of earthly mothers. There is no earthly explanation for so much talent to be possessed by one person.

John has gone back to dwell in the land of his Fathers. We will not soon see his like again.